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July 2010

The aesthetics of healthy aging

By Biomedicine in museums

As you may know, Medical Museion takes part in a multidisciplinary Center for Healthy Aging here at the University of Copenhagen. Currently, two of our junior researchers, postdoc Lucy Lyons and phd student Morten Bülow, are doing their research projects within the scope of the Center, and we are about to recruit yet another phd student.

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise to readers of this blog that our contribution to the overall Center activities involves a strong aesthetic component.

For example, we experimented with an aesthetic approach to aging in the Oldetopia exhibition two years ago. Lucy’s joining our group last December was a deliberate attempt to strengthen the aesthetic side. And the current exhibition ‘Healthy Aging: A Life Span Approach’ (see also here), shown in our external exhibition area in the main building of the Faculty of Health Sciences is dominated by Danish photographer Liv Carlé Mortensen’s 15 collages of centennarians (like this one).

I just want to mention this as a background for why the upcoming conference on ‘Aging, Old Age, Memory, Aesthetics’ in Toronto, 25-27 March next year may be quite interesting for us. The conference focuses on how aging is portrayed and experienced in literature and the arts in light of social, political, scientific and cultural contexts:

In using the term aesthetics, we are drawing attention to the arts, aesthetic practices, theories of art, and modes of representation as they pertain to aging and memory. We look forward to presentations that analyze a variety of theoretical, thematic, and disciplinary approaches that remain linked by the consistent placement of old age and aging at the centre of concentrated investigation.

They are also recruiting creative submissions by artists whose work is concerned with the images generated by old age. 300-word proposals should be sent to by Friday 1 October 1, 2010.

Can you 'inhapt' an object (as a haptic alternative to 'inspect')?

By Biomedicine in museums

Instead of saying that we investigate an object, we often use the verb ‘inspect’. According to my dictionary, the ‘in-‘ prefix is an intensifier and the ‘-spect’ suffix is derived from the Latin verb specere, meaning ‘to look at’, ‘to see’.

To ‘inspect’ then is more than just seeing or looking at something. It means to look intensely, carefully and closely.

This is of course what museum curators do all the time when they get new objects into the collections. They look carefully at the objects and often document the inspection by means of photography (or drawing or painting).

But sometimes curators investigate objects through other senses than vision. For example, they may touch and smell the objects, sometimes deliberately, or at least accidentally in the course of looking at it. They may even taste it.

In these cases, the verb ‘inspect’ is obviously insufficient, even misleading. For example, when I handle or finger an object to investigate its texture, its temperature, its dry-/wetness and its soft-/hardness, I obviously don’t ‘inspect’ it. I may do so in parallel with the handling and fingering, but the primary activity (handling, fingering) is not covered by the verb ‘inspect’.

Speaking in terms of ‘inspection’ when one listens, touches, smells or tastes an object intensely and carefully is an instance of what is sometimes called the ‘hegemony of the visual’. The unique experience of other senses are reduced to that of vision.

What verbs can be used for listening, touch, smell or taste objects intensely?

My dictionary doesn’t have any intensified synonyms of any of these sensory activites. One has to use phrases like ‘intense smelling’, ‘attentive listening’, ‘intensive touching’.

‘Intense touching’ has unintended erotic rather than curatorial connotations. So what about ‘inhapt’ (from Greek hapto, I grasp; cf. haptics) as a straightly curatorial term?

‘Inhapt’ isn’t in the OED and is also a clumsy combination of Latin and Greek. But it’s new and sounds nice: “I’m going to inhapt the new collection of plastic syringes today”.

Would European museums be able to co-operate around the preservation of the contemporary scientific, technological and medical heritage?

By Biomedicine in museums

In four earlier posts (# 1 here, #2 here, #3 here, and #4 here), I’ve argued for a more proactive practice with respect to the preservation of the contemporary medical scientific and technological heritage. The posts were provoked by Christian Sichau’s negative attitude (quoted here). There is no space for the new acquisitions, he claimed, and the exhibition curators receive all the museum money anyway. So forget about collecting.

I don’t agree. In my last post I made an argument for distributed curatorial expertise as a way of solving the space problem. Here I’ll argue for another way to overcome the space and resource problem, namely to strengthen the co-operation between museums across the European borders.

Sichau’s pessimistic view is quite understandable as long as museums think of themselves as regional or national actors. From this point of view, not even giants like Deutsches Museum, Science Museum in London, or the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., have the staff, time, and money to embark on systematic (or even systematically selective) collecting programs to cover all or most of the contemporary science, technology, and medicine. As long as they think of themselves as national actors, they will continue to have a space problem.

It’s not made easier by the fact that museums of science, technology, and medicine have very little tradition for working together on collections (except for occasional collaborative projects at the interpersonal level). Museums act as if they are international competitors rather than collaborators and as if each is in principle responsible for the preservation of the entire scientific, technological, and medical heritage.

So as long as you think in terms of a national museum, I guess it is quite difficult to avoid the kind defeatism that Sichau expresses (unless we develop very radical distributed collecting procedures, as outlined in the former post).

But if we think in European terms, the space problem would be more easy to overcome. Why shouldn’t we be able to establish a co-operative collecting program in which national and regional museums agree on how to divide the scientific, technological, and medical heritage between them? One museum specialising on, for example, biomedical laboratory equipment, another on solid state physics, a third on imaging technologies, and so forth. 

After all, there are plenty of historical precedents for doing this. Hundreds of local and regional collections of science, technology, and medicine all over Europe have, throughout the last couple of hundred years, developed rather specialised collections — for example, the collection of surgical instrument and medical instrument catalogues at the Thackray Museum in Leeds, or the collection of eighteenth and early nineteenth century pathological specimens in the Hunterian Museum in London.

True, there are so far no examples of national museums that have deliberately divided the collecting of the late twentieth century and contemporary science, technology, and medicine heritage among them. And admittedly, this is not an easy task. No museum, especially not a national museum, would probablty give up its ambitions to comprehensiveness easily. Even if they do not have the resources today to collect in a comprehensive way today, their ambition is still to cover everything (in some unforeseeable future when they get that precious extra storing space). Without binding agreements of co-operation, no museum will abstain from some areas of acquisitioning and let one of its national or regional competitors take over that particular domain of artefacts.

So to give chunks of the potential artefact acquisition spectrum away to other museums, be they national or regional, is not something that comes easily. Would Science Museum just abstain from collecting nanotechnological and nanomedical objects and let Deutsches Museum take over this burgeoning field? Would Medical Museion stop collecting artefacts from contemporary protein research even if we realised that another European museum maybe had better resources and a more skilled staff to do this?

There are also big administrative and logistic problems involved — how, for example, to develop a continuously updated prospective collection list of the enormous number of artefacts in fields like medical device technology, where a new patent is granted every hour or so?

Yet I believe these are problems that need to be overcome if the development of the contemporary scientific, technical and medical culture over the last decades shall not end on the garbage dumps. If we want to preserve more than infinitesimal parts of the contemporary scientific, technological, and medical heritage, we need to work out a co-operative collecting policy on the European level.

Evocative stories about evocative objects: Sherry Turkle's Evocative Objects, Falling for Science and The Inner History of Devices

By Biomedicine in museums

As this blog, among others, have claimed for some time, a ‘material turn’ is currently being added to the seemingly never-ending row of ’turns’ in the humanities and social sciences. An increasing number of scholars are switching their attention to materiality, material objects and material artefacts.

History, philosophy and social studies of science and technology are no exceptions. Forty years ago, the classic interest in the theoretical and conceptual development of science and technology was supplemented by studies of changing social practices; twenty years ago, studies of visualisation and images in science and technology came to the forefront; now, intellectual interest is increasingly invested in material objects.

If the notion of a ‘material turn’ in the history, philosophy and social studies of science and technology is supposed to be more than a superficial terminological redressing, however, it needs to take the material properties of objects ‘as such’ seriously. This is in fact more radical than it sounds. Because much of what has so far been understood as studies of material objects in science and technology has been by proxy only, i.e., textual description of objects or images of objects or, even worse, textual descriptions of images of objects.

Rarely, however, have the physical objects themselves been put into the center of immediate scholarly attention; furthermore, the emerging ubiquity of digitalised texts and images has added to the tendency of an ever-increasing de-centering material objects ‘as such’; it is only museum curators that have insisted on the direct handling and investigation of scientific and technological objects, unmediated by digital textualisation and visualisation.

Sherry Turkle is one of those scholars who does not want to reduce material objects to what is googlifiable. In a series of three small books, published on MIT Press (Evocative Objects: Things We Think With (2007); Falling for Science: Objects in Mind (2008), and The Inner History of Devices (2008), Turkle summarises decades of interest in her own and others’ emotional fascination with and attachment to objects (a fourth volume has been published as well, but I haven’t read it yet). She argues that we are way too distracted by our digital dreams and that we should instead pay more attention to developing our passionate relationship with material things, be they everyday, scientific or technological objects.

Not least for educational reasons. Turkle suggests we have gone too far in believing that digitalisation and simulations will help solve the crisis in science and technology education, and advocates interaction with pre-digital physical objects as an alternative route for recruiting science and technology students. Playing with real physical things rather than playing computer games.

To many, this may sound nostalgic, even reactionary. But Turkle is not a romantic anti-digitalisation freak. As professor in social studies of science and technology at MIT, having decades of research into computer interaction and internet identity behind her, Turkle is eminently placed to evaluate the pros and cons of interacting with scientific and technological objects via the screen versus by close-up and personal inspection.

Evocative Objects contains 34 short autobiographical essays by scientists, artists, designers and humanities scholars, who tell stories about how everyday, scientific and technological objects have been powerful companions in their daily life experience. For example, technology writer Annalee Newitz writes about her laptop (her “irreplaceable … brain prosthesis”) and philosopher Robert P. Crease pays homage to Foucault’s pendulum, what he calls a “deep object”: “a thing that “guides and disciplines curiosity and fascination into interaction and self-transformation”.

Turkle concludes that “we live our lives in the middle of things” and indicates that true cross-disciplinarity between scientists, philosophers and artists becomes possible by focusing on objects which makes us able “to find common ground in everyday experience”.

The major part of the second book in the series (Falling for Science) is devoted to 51 even shorter autobiographical essays written by Turkle’s MIT students over the last 25 years, spanning from everyday things like radios, stuffed bunnies and sand castles to lasers, computers and vacuum tubes. The former student writings are supplemented by eight essays by senior researchers and designers, who were asked to look back to their childhood years to identify an object of ultimate importance for their future careers.

The Inner History of Devices, finally, is collection of twelwe reports written by scholars associated with MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self, led by Turkle. Based on interviews with people about how they feel about important objects, like prosthetic eyes, cardiac defibrillators and dialysis machines, they are seen by Turkle as ‘intimate ethnographies’ infused with the self-reflective “sensibilities of the clinician and the memoirist”.

Together these 100+ essays give a rich insight into the wide range of possibilities for how scientific, and especially technological, objects enter into our emotional lives and help us think. In Turkle’s understanding, objects bring together intellect and emotion: “We think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with” (Evocative Objects, p. 5).

By focusing on how scientists, engineers and designers engage concretely, personally and affectively with objects, Turkle introduces a healthy common-sensical approach to the ‘material turn’ in the history, philosophy and social studies of science and technology. She carries her assorted theoretical background (some French structuralism, some Piaget, a pinch of Freud, and especially Lacanian psychoanalytical thinking) lightly: The many concrete cases largely speak for themselves, giving the reader a feeling of being close to the authors’ actual cognitive and emotional experience.

I have two problems with these otherwise delightful and edifying collections. First, one of the consequences of Turkle’s psychoanalytic leanings is that the material objects tend to be reduced to mere props in the narrative unity of the subjects, whereas the particular materiality of the objects themselves tends to be under-examined. These books are then, slightly paradoxically, better at explaining the life of the inquiring mind than they are at examining the materiality of life.

Second — although I devoured the 900 pages in one long uninterrupted reading session — I ended asking myself whether the immediate experiential feel reflects the authors’ actual experiences or to what extent these are post hoc reconstructions. For example, in her essay ‘Microscope’ (Falling for Science, pp. 220-6), neurobiologist Susan Hockfield (presently MIT President) claims how, from early age, she “wanted to see inside things”, magnified them and took them apart. But I cannot see how this ‘memory’ gives the reader (or Hockfield herself) any clues to understanding her later scientific career. It’s either banal (what kid doesn’t like taking things apart to see what’s inside?) or a standard trope for scientific autobiographies (a neuromicroscopist ought to have such a childhood).

This points to a pervasive problem in the three volumes under review. Autobiographical memories and witness reports are notoriously unreliable. It’s difficult to say whether all these delightful stories about childhoods full of Lego bricks (the popular Danish toy bricks loom large in these retrospective accounts), bubbles, card decks and Atari computers stem from memories generated in childhood or whether they are the result of later fantasies, free associations and cultural expectations.

But maybe it doesn’t really matter. The question of their veracity doesn’t add or subtract to the charm and power of seduction inherent in these stories. So even if there weren’t any evocative objects in the childhoods of the authors of these essays, they and their editor have surely produced a great set of evocative stories, which may help historians of science and technology intensify the current ‘material turn’.

Creating a distributed curatorial expertise for acquisitioning the contemporary medical heritage

By Biomedicine in museums

In three earlier posts (here, here and here), I’ve argued in favour of a more proactive acquisition practice with respect to the contemporary medical scientific and technological heritage.

Against some curators who believe we need to restrict acquisitioning (for economic, space etc. reasons), I suggest that we should rather open up the sluice gates for collecting as much contemporary stuff as possible.

Immediately, this sounds like an impossibility. All science, medical and technology museums have limited staff and resources. How could we ever dream of acquiring, keeping and managing the tsunami of images, documents and used artefacts that would arrive from the contemporary world of medicine?

The solution, as I see it, is to begin re-thinking museum acquisition and curating practices in terms of distributed curatorial expertise.

Distributed expertise is a variety of crowdsourcing, a term coined by Jeff Howe in a Wired magazine article in 2006. Wikipedia defines it as a ‘‘distributed problem-solving and production model’’:

Problems are broadcast to an unknown group of solvers in the form of an open call for solutions. Users—also known as the crowd—typically form into online communities, and the crowd submits solutions. The crowd also sorts through the solutions, finding the best ones. These best solutions are then owned by the entity that broadcast the problem in the first place—the crowdsourcer—and the winning individuals in the crowd are sometimes rewarded. […] Crowdsourcing may produce solutions from amateurs or volunteers working in their spare time, or from experts or small businesses which were unknown to the initiating organization.

Crowdsourcing is only one of many social technologies for participatory knowledge production that have emerged in recent years. In analogy to the notion of ‘web 2.0’, museologists like Nina Simon have coined the notion of ‘museum 2.0’. Simon’s idea is not primarily to employ social web media as tools in museum outreach, but rather to rethink the physical museum in terms of the conceptual apparatus of ‘web 2.0’; that is, a participatory museum, in analogy to the participatory web.

The ambitious task of museum 2.0 is to reconceptualise all activities of the museum — research, acquisitions, curating, exhibition making and other kinds of outreach — in terms of user participation, user creativity and distributed knowledge.

To think about the acquisitioning of scientific, technological, and medical artefacts in terms of museum 2.0 implies that everyone who deals, in his/her daily work, with objects which could become potential museum artefacts is a potential curator.

The goal for the participatory museum would be to transform such potential curators into active participants in the acquisition and curating of collections (I call it ‘crowd acquisitioning’).

Social technologies like distributing, curating, and crowd acquisitioning do not by themselves solve the space problem associated with the collecting of the contemporary scientific, technological and medical heritage. However, one of the implications of the participatory museum is that its collections do not necessarily have to be physically located in a central museum building. If curating and curators can be distributed, so can collections.

The idea of a distributed museum collection is not a central museum with peripheral repositories to which only professional curators have keys and access. It should rather be understood as a network of local collections. each managed by its local adjunct curator.

Most departments in most universities have their own small collections, sometimes just a small cupboard with a few objects kept for commemorative and nostalgic reasons. The governing role of the central museum vis-á-vis the distributed museum collection would then primarily be to offer advice in the form of guidelines for ‘best museum practice’ in acquisitions and curating.

To think in terms of a network of distributed museum collections not only promises to solve some of the problems with lack of storage space. It may also become a powerful instrument for raising the historical awareness and responsibility of practitioners-curators. Instead of employing more professional staff to collect, curate, and register artefacts in the central museum repository, scarce resources would be better used by training practitioner-curators to become gatekeepers that build relations between the museum and the rest of the university.

In this scenario — what would the role of the curator be? Instead of doing all the curatorial work themselves, professional museum curators would rather develop guidelines for how the network of distributed curators shall curate and preserve; the professionals would also distribute protocols for registration in a wiki-based central database; and, most importantly, they would spend much time and energy raising discussions among the practitioners of why the scientific, technological, and medical heritage is worth keeping and its role in the creation of cultural identity. In short, the main role of professional museum curators would be to build a distributed curatorial experience.

Much of this is hardly new. Many local and regional museums have worked along these lines long before the concept ‘museum 2.0’ was coined. Many science, technology, and medical museums once started as participatory collecting projects initiated by enthusiastic practitioners, who created small local collections, some of which still remain in the custody of departments and scientific societies.

Medical Museion is a case in point. Today the museum has one of Europe’s largest, richest, and most varied collections of medical artefacts of all kinds — but actually it once started as a private initiative by Copenhagen doctors on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Danish Medical Association (DADL) in 1907. Initially conceived as a collection of contemporary medical devices for a temporary show to commemorate the progress of medicine since the founding of DADL in 1857, the collection was made permanent and the museum continued to grow, largely thanks to the enthusiasm of the contributors, and it continued to do so for at least two or three generations.

Today, such participatory acquisition practices have largely been abolished. The progressive professionalisation in science, technical, and medical museums throughout the twentieth century has made such practices look amateurish and antiquated.

However, I believe it is time to rethink the advantage of bringing practitioners of science, technology, and medicine into more active roles in the work of acquisitioning and curating. Citizen-science projects such as and Galaxy Zoo are excellent examples of how this can be done in principle — although the specific features of museum knowledge production, that is, its material artefact, is an extra challenge to overcome (affter all museums cannot be run in the virtual space only).

Read the final and last post in this series of five here.

Why bother? So what?

By Biomedicine in museums

I and my family made summer vacation plans quite some time ago, so I’m going to miss Wellcome Centre for the History of Medicine’s swan-song conference titled ‘The Future of Medical History’, to be held at Goodenough College, London, 15-17 July.

The preliminary programme lists a long array of interesting papers. Those interested in displaying recent biomedical science display might for example be interested in hearing Sander Gilman speak on “Representing Health and Illness: Thoughts for the 21st Century”,  Monica Green on “Letting the Genome Out of the Bottle: On Creating Alliances Between Medical History and the Historicist Sciences”, Sammy Lee on “Where are the clones?: A brief history of human cloning” — and listen to Roger Cooter’s (autobiographical?) confession “Why Bother? So What?”